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WSU Pullman’s Horticulture Center Offers Unique Potential for Learning and Teaching

Deb Pehrson recently observed that people who grew up in a city “may never even have stepped foot in an orchard.” Pehrson is the manager of WSU’s Horticulture Center, the nexus of Pullman-based education and research in all things horticultural. The recently established Center is the home to a newly planted orchard full of apples, pears, and cherries, as well as berries and other fruits.

“So,” she continues, “how would you know if you would like to work in agriculture if you’ve never even been in an orchard? I want the Hort Center to be the place where students can come and experience being outside working.” Pehrson says they might find they like working in agriculture better than “sitting in a cubicle typing on their computer. I had one gal come to us this fall who was working for a well-known big box store. She said, ‘I’m just so tired of fluorescent lights.’ If people get out here and do stuff they might say, ‘You know, I heard agriculture’s hard work and it is, but this is fun!’ Then we might get more people coming into agriculture.”

With an aging workforce, getting young people interested in working in agriculture is a critical need.

Photo of WSU Hort CEnter manager Deb Perhson talking to students in Dr. Lisa DeVetter's class about horticultural processes
On a cool, gray September day at the WSU Horticulture Center, Deb Pehrson, left, talks to assistant professor Lisa Devetter’s students, right, about the work being done at the Center.

Pehrson says the Hort Center welcomes not only students exploring alternatives to office work, but anyone looking to get some hands-on educational experience. Washington State is one of the world’s most agriculturally productive regions, rich in economic and scientific potential, so the Hort Center is a valuable resource for training the next generation of growers, processors, technicians, and researchers.

“I would love the 100-level biological science classes to come out for tours,” Pehrson says.

With her warm and welcoming demeanor, she interacts with lots of locals through the Center’s ongoing fruit sales. With a wide variety of apples and pears, Pehrson and her team’s fruit sales operation help fund the Center.

But she’d like to see more academic departments taking advantage of the Center’s resources. Already, irrigation and other ag-related engineering work has be taught here. So, too, could pruning and other tree care skills. Biosystems engineers working on automating some of the tasks that must be performed in orchards, are using the orchard to test the potential of using robotic arms to pick apples. All manner of biochemical and molecular biological teaching could be done by tapping into the wealth of apple and other fruit genetics growing at the Center.

Small-fruit horticulturist Lisa DeVetter has used the Hort Center for hands-on teaching in her pomology class. Pomology is the study of apples and pears.

“The Hort Center is an ideal place to connect lecture-based material to the real world,” DeVetter said. In the Fall of 2022, her students learned about various orchard crops grown at the Center, as well as important pre-plant and orchard design considerations. They also got to learn about trellising systems, irrigation, and fertigation, that is, the application of liquid nutrients.

As Pehrson says, WSU Pullman already offers a unique undergraduate experience, and the Horticulture Center can and should be an important part of that experience.

–Brian Charles Clark